Clubius Incarnate Part 26 – Whiffenpoof (October 1959)

Dad got mad today because the Michigan football team lost. He was down in his office part of the basement listening to the man on the radio saying what the teams were doing in the game. I was playing in my part of the basement making Tom Swift’s island where he made things in his “lab” and launched his spaceships, planes and submarines. Dad used TWO swear words, I guess because he was REALLY mad that the football team he liked the best was losing. Mom never got mad like that when the teams she liked lost. She’d say, “We’ll get ‘em next time”.

“Damn it to hell”, dad said with a low but very fierce, even scary voice, and he broke the pencil in half he was holding. He saw me looking at him and started looking worried, and mad even in a different way, at himself. It seemed strange to me that a person could get mad at themselves, but then grownups always did stuff that surprised me. Then I remembered that when I said “damn” to mom about tying my shoes, that later I wished I hadn’t said it.

“Did Michigan lose?” I asked. I was getting less worried now about asking adults questions. It could be much quicker than trying to figure out everything by myself.

“No”, he said, blowing air out of his mouth as he spoke and putting his thumb and finger from one hand on his forehead as he closed his eyes, “But they blew it on a fourth down play and now Northwestern is probably going to score another touchdown and put the game out of reach. It would have been a huge upset of the top team in the Big Ten and turned their season around if they could have just won this…” He paused, and I could tell he wanted to say “damn” again, but he just said “game”.

You couldn’t see the stadium from our house but it was pretty close and you could hear it when all the people there cheered at something good or said “oh” at something bad. Dad and I had even gone to the stadium when the team was playing and were able to get in without having tickets at the middle part of the game and sit and watch the end part. The first time we went, Michigan lost. The second time they won, and everyone in the place stood up and counted backwards to one before they started cheering. There were so many people it was scary, I couldn’t even try to count them. Dad said there were “thousands”, you had to count to a hundred TEN times for even one “thousand”. It didn’t seem there were enough houses for all those people to live in.

Then later dad went to the store to buy some stuff but he bought the wrong kind of grapefruit juice and mom got mad at him and they had what they called a “fight”. It wasn’t like a fight with guns or hitting each other like on TV, but just with words. Mom’s words sounded fierce and dad’s sounded sad.

“Eric”, she said, “How many times have I told you the brand of grapefruit juice that I like?”

“I know Liz”, he said, “But this was on sale and we need to save money to pay for Towsley. It’s just grapefruit juice!”

“I like what I like”, she said, “And I don’t like this cheap stuff so it’s money wasted, not money saved! I KNOW we have to save money, and I’m cutting back on the grocery bill everywhere we can. But grapefruit juice is my special treat.”

“So I’ll go back and buy the kind you like, and I’ll drink this stuff”, he said, “It’s all the same to me. It’s not such a big deal!“

“You’re right”, she said, her voice still fierce, “Grapefruit juice is not such a big deal. What IS a big deal is I feel like you don’t listen to me or you ignore what’s important to me.”

“God Liz”, dad said with his sad voice, “That’s not true!”

“Well it feels like it sometimes”, she said, her voice getting less fierce.

Then after the “fight”, like usual, mom felt better but dad stayed mad, but now he’d get mad at the TV or the pencil sharpener.

But even on days when dad was really mad he would still read or sing songs with David and me at bedtime. Tonight mom did the reading part. She read us “The Cat in the Hat”. She had read it before, but it was the kind of book you could read over and over, because it made you laugh, and she and I both liked getting ready for the funny parts and making silly faces when they came. I think David liked it too, though he didn’t know enough yet to know when to make silly faces. I liked that the cat just decided to do something and did it, and then if there was a problem he always had a way to fix it. I also liked it because even though you read the words, it was kind of like singing, because each set of words sounded the same at the end, like they did in a song.

She liked reading us books that had pictures on every page, and she would read them so both David and I could see those pictures, and she would move her finger along the words as she read them. She said it would help us learn how to read. I was starting to figure out how to read some words myself, and I really wanted to get better at it so I could read books by myself, or even write my own books. When dad read to David and me, he would just read the words without showing them to us, and the books he read had a lot more words. Though if there was a picture, he would show us that.

But then mom said goodnight to David and me and gave David a kiss. She used to give me a kiss too, but I didn’t like that anymore, so she would just put her fingers on my shoulder and smile at me. Or sometimes when she was really happy, she would touch a finger on my nose, which wasn’t so bad as a kiss.

But after she read it would be time for dad to come in and sing songs. Even if he had spent the whole day working down in his office in the basement he would still come up and sing us songs. And even on days like today when he was mad he would still sing. He knew we liked the singing, and now I was singing most songs with him once I knew them. But it also made him feel things when he sang. Happy when he was singing about happy stuff and sad for sad stuff.

Mom and dad didn’t say anything to each other as she left our room and he came in. Maybe they were still mad at each other or at least he was still mad at her. He moved the rocking chair from the spot where mom had left it, by the head of my bed so I could see the pages she read, back to its regular spot across the room. He sat down and rocked back in the chair, looking out the door to our room, thinking and not saying anything for a moment. Then he slapped his hands on the top of his legs, made a smile and looked at David and me.

“You guys ready for some songs?” he asked.

I nodded. David kind of nodded too. He had a bed now, just like mine, because he was walking and was able to climb out of his crib.

“What shall we sing?” dad asked.

“The railroad song”, I said. He had started singing it after I started building train tracks at play school and in the basement. I liked it because everybody was working together. I also liked it because it had different parts where the song changed. He started singing and I joined in, and David looked at me singing and opened his mouth and made noises too…

We’ve been working on the railroad
All the livelong day
We’ve been working on the railroad
Just to pass the time away
Can’t you hear the whistle blowing
Rise up so early in the morn
Can’t you hear the captain shouting
Dinah, blow your horn

The first time dad sang the song I thought maybe “Dinah” was the name of the train. I hadn’t heard stories about trains, but I had heard stories about ships, like “Treasure Island”, where both the goodguy sailors and badguy pirates called their ships “she”, like they were women. And trains were a lot like ships, because they were big and they carried people and other stuff from one place to another, only they did it on land on tracks, instead of the sea.

Then the second and third parts of the song get stuck on Dinah…

Dinah, won’t you blow
Dinah, won’t you blow
Dinah, won’t you blow your horn
Dinah, won’t you blow
Dinah, won’t you blow
Dinah, won’t you blow your horn

Men were always hoping women would do stuff, like “be mine” or get married. And if they thought ships were like women, then they hoped “she would make it through the storm”. So it made sense they’d hope trains would do stuff too, like “blow your horn”.

Then the third part tells you that Dinah IS a real woman and not a train, because she’s in the kitchen and real trains can’t go in kitchens. Dad looked at me with his eyes really open, pretending like this next part of the song was a surprise…

Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah
Someone’s in the kitchen I know-ow-ow-ow
Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah
Strumming on the old banjo

So when you sing “someone’s in the kitchen I know”, I wondered if you just know that someone else is in the kitchen with her, or do you know WHO that person is? And then in the fourth part, the song gets stuck on what that person with Dinah is singing, which turns out to be silly words…

…and singing
Fie, fi, fiddly I o
Fie, fi, fiddly I o
Fie, fi, fiddly I o
Strumming on the old banjo

It was fun to sing because it starts out like a regular song, but then gets silly as it goes along, and everybody singing it knows that it’s going to get silly but pretends together they are singing a regular song.

After I had picked a song then we’d do something funny. Dad would say it’s David’s turn to pick out a song and we’d both look at David and he would say stuff but not any words we could figure out. Then dad or I would pretend we knew what David said.

“He wants us to sing ‘I want to go back to Michigan’”, I said, looking at dad like I knew we were just pretending we knew what he was saying. Dad looked back at me, his eyes seemed happier now and he did a little bit of that laugh through his nose.

“Okay”, dad said, clapping his hands on the top part of his legs again, “This one’s for David!”

And dad sang the song like he had done so many times before. And I sang along like I had learned to do a while ago, but this time I sang really loud, because I thought that would maybe make dad happy again, and it did. It’s not that he wanted me to be grownup, but he did want me to be able to do stuff really well, like sing, and run, and hit a baseball, have ideas, plus not swear at mom…

I want to go back to Michigan
To dear Ann Arbor town
Back to Joe’s and the Orient
And back to some of the money I spent
I want to go back to Michigan
To dear Ann Arbor town
I want to go back; I got to go back
To Michigan

I was figuring out more of the song now than when he first sang it to me. “Michigan” was the name of the college “school” that he went to and that Mom used to go to. “Ann Arbor” was the town we lived in. “Money” was stuff people gave to each other and you had to give to the people who “worked” at the store to take stuff from the store you wanted. It was what mom and dad always needed more of. “Joe’s and the Orient” I still had no idea what that was! And unlike the railroad song we had just sung, the second part of this song sounded like the first except with different words…

Oh! Father and Mother pay all the bills
And we have all the fun
In the friendly rivalry of college life, Hooray
And we have to figure a helluva lot
To tell what we have done
With the coin we blew at dear ole’ Michigan

“Bills” were things mom worried about, but I think they were just pieces of paper so I’m not sure why. A “coin” was that little shiny circle of money that dad kept in his pants pocket and mom kept in a little “purse” inside her big “purse”. When you were in college, like dad, you had fun with lots of friends like I did in the park. And the song even had that “hell” swear word in it, which I thought was really interesting.

So at the end of that second song, we usually did one more. I chose the first one. We pretended that David chose the second. So now Dad chose the third.

“How about the Wiffenpoof song?” he asked. I nodded, it WAS his turn.

That song was one I hadn’t heard him sing as much as some of the others so I was still figuring out how to sing the words, a lot I still didn’t know. I almost wanted to stop him sometimes, in the middle of the song, and ask him what some of the words meant, but it didn’t seem right to mess up his singing, because it seemed like one of his favorite things to do.

He did tell me once, that the “Wiffenpoofs” were a “group” of “young men” who went to this other college place called “Yale” and liked to sing songs together. I think there were other “groups” who were singing songs, on the radio. There was a group mom liked called “The Platters” who sang a song about smoke.

He closed his eyes, pushed out his lips, and started to sing…

To the tables down at Mory’s
To the place where Louie dwells
To the dear old Temple bar we love so well

He opened his eyes and looked at me. I could tell he was thinking about both sad and happy things at the same time. Like he was thinking about something that WAS happy but was now sad. But the place with the tables he was singing about I couldn’t figure out.

Sing the Whiffenpoofs assembled with their glasses raised on high
And the magic of their singing casts its spell

I had seen grownups at those parties at Molly’s house do that “toast” thing, where they held the glass they were drinking up in the air together and someone would say something and everybody else would say the same thing and then drink. I think they did it to make sure everyone was drinking enough of that party stuff that made them happy and silly. And I had heard that word “magic” a lot. I wondered if it was about trying to make pretend things real.

Yes, the magic of their singing of the songs we love so well
“Shall I Wasting” and “Mavourneen” and the rest

I wondered if grownups thought singing could make pretend things real. I wondered if dad thought so and that’s why he liked to sing so much. I wondered if singing really could make pretend things real. Dad raised his head and his eyes looked up. His voice went up high…

We will serenade our Louie while life and voice shall last

I wondered if I should ask dad what a “Louie” was. He looked down and then sang lower…

Then we’ll pass and be forgotten with the rest

Those words sounded so sad to me. I had never thought that people could forget you. Could that really happen? If Molly went away for a long time would she forget that I was her friend? What if mom or dad went away for a long time? Could that even happen? If they both went away, I’d have to do things by myself, go to stores and buy things, drive a car, tie my shoes. Then dad looked at me and sang…

We’re poor little lambs who have lost our way
Baa, baa, baa
We’re little black sheep who have gone astray
Baa, baa, baa

The words sounded silly, pretending you were sheep, but dad wasn’t singing them like they were silly. It was some different kind of pretending that grownups did that I hadn’t figured out yet. There was so much to figure out! Dad looked out the door of our room as he continued…

Gentleman songsters off on a spree
Doomed from here to eternity
Lord have mercy on such as we
Baa, baa, baa

I had heard men say that “gentleman” word when they wanted to be in charge of something. And a lot of men and women talked about that “lord” guy when they were worried.

Dad had finished singing. He didn’t say anything for a minute while he pushed his lips together, looked out the door of the room, did thinking and nodded his head slowly.

“Goodnight Cloob. Goodnight Mister D”, he said. He wiggled David’s nose and then found my big toe under the covers and wiggled it. He smiled like he had thought something good and his eyes twinkled and he walked out of our room.

I put my head on my pillow and closed my eyes, but I couldn’t stop thinking about everything. I still had a lot of figuring out to do about grownups. I know mom liked being happy, but I wondered if dad liked being sad instead, and if that was why they got mad at each other. And I wondered about talking and singing. When grownup women talked to other grownups they were usually friendly, except when they got mad at grownup men. But when grownup men talked to each other it was often more fierce, like they were playing a game they were trying to win. But then grownup men would sing together and that would be more friendly. I didn’t hear grownup women sing as much, not even on the radio. I think mom liked hearing men sing, like Frank Sinatra, or the Platters, or dad even, because it made her happy. And even when dad sang a song that was sad, it made him feel better, because he liked to be sad.

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